Thank goodness for 2018. December 2017 was dreadful for the Philadelphia 76ers, winning only five out of fifteen contests, and giving the ball away like candy on Halloween. Yes, Joel Embiid missed a number of games due to a back injury. Too many times though, with and without Joel, they had double-digit leads late in the second half that they let evaporate into heartbreaking losses, dropping from 6th to 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The most glaring issue with the team is surprisingly Robert Covington. His three point percentage and overall field goal percentage each dropped 5% from December to January and worst of all, his lock-down defense was average at best. Over the course of the month and especially in the Spurs contest, he was beaten off the dribble in half-court sets more than I had seen all season. They need the real Ro-Co back.
It’s time to reboot and the Sixers are off to a great start with two home victories. As ugly as the win over the Spurs was, it was desperately needed. The victory over the Pistons was one of those games where everyone was clicking and it wouldn’t have mattered who the Sixers played that night. Going into January, Sixers’ opponents this month had a combined winning percentage of .575. That will easily be their best competition of any month during the 2017-2018 season.
Two games each vs. the Spurs, Celtics and Bucks, plus a home game against the Raptors and a super tough road matchup taking on the Thunder make up the bulk of the month. The “home game” vs. Boston in London this Thursday is a toss-up. Each club has a few players with international ties. The Sixers with Simmons (Australia), Embiid (Cameroon), Saric (Croatic) and TLC (France). Boston with Kyrie Irving (born in Australia), Al Horford (Dominican Republic) and Aron Baynes (New Zealand). I don’t think the international focus of the game will have a great effect on either team. I could see Joel Embiid embracing this unique spotlight and having one of his best games of the season.
If I had to put money on what I’d say were probably losses, I’d have to go with the road matchups against the Spurs and Bucks. The victory against San Antonio last week basically sealed the Sixers’ fate when they travel to the Alamo on January 26th. Coach Gregg Popovich won’t be sitting four regulars again. The Sixers weren’t impressive at all vs. the team he fielded last week, which included only LaMarcus Aldridge and bench players. They pulled off the victory, but blew another large second half lead and displayed their typical carelessness throughout the fourth quarter. Popovich will lay the hammer down on his apprentice Brett Brown. The Bucks road game on January 29th will assuredly be a loss. The Sixers will be on the road at Oklahoma City on the 28th and it’s their only back-to-back game of the month. So far this season, the Sixers are 1-4 in the second game of back-to-back matchups, averaging 10 points less than their opponents in those five contests, and giving up a gaudy 116 points per game. Add to that the likelihood of Embiid being forced to sit out, and I’d give them a 20% chance to win at Milwaukee.
There is some good news. The Sixers just played their best, most efficient game of the season on Friday vs. a solid Detroit Pistons squad. The hometown club shot almost 50% from three point land and almost 50% from the field overall. They also had an extremely rare 2-1 assist to turnover ratio and outrebounded Detroit by twenty. Now that’s something to build on. Add to that Ben Simmons shooting 70% from the foul line over his last five games and Coach Brown playing Richaun Holmes almost as many minutes as Amir Johnson the past two games. Holmes is finally getting more playing time, including floor time simultaneously with Embiid. Maybe Brett Brown has realized Amir Johnson is not Wilt Chamberlain. Here’s to progress! January will be a tough road. If the Sixers come out of this month at.500 or better for the season, it will be a sign of good things to come.
Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports